|Swain in front of the Wyoming House for Historic Women|
I believe I have mentioned before my considerable pride that my home state of Wyoming was the first jurisdiction in the United States to give women free and equal suffrage with men in all elections. This was accomplished in 1869 when the sparsely populated U.S. Territory was still largely raw frontier.
A fair amount has been written on pioneer women office holders like Esther Hobart Morris, a Justice of the Peace in South Pass or Bailiff Mary Atkinson in Laramie, both in 1870. Less well known is the first woman to actually cast a ballot in a general election on September 6, 1870, Louisa Ann Swain.
White women were still scarce in a place where adventuresome men were seeking fortunes in mining, ranching, farming, and the fine art of separating other fortune seekers from their gains in saloons and whore houses. Others were laborers on the railroad, hard rock miners, cowboys, and soldiers. Their very scarcity raised their esteem and value in the rough and tumble rail heads and mining boom towns.
Women came in two classes, although it was quite possible to move up—or down—between them. First on the scene were, almost inevitably, the whores. Many suffered and were abused. But others prospered, saved their money and often became local land owners and business women. More than a few married their more prosperous Johns and by the acceptable alchemy of the time were soon respectable ladies.
Gentlewomen came first as the wives of officers and non-coms at Army posts, with the bosses and foremen on the Union Pacific railroad construction, as the sun-bonnet pioneer wives of would be sod busters. Then, as the towns became a little more settled, they came as the wives of merchants, as school marms, and as single fortune hunters. Many of these women, too, went into business running laundries, hotels, boarding houses and such. With their husbands mostly too busy grubbing money to pay attention to civic affairs, women of both classes, sometimes in an uneasy and suspicious alliance, sometimes at each other’s throats, had become de facto civic leaders even before the Territorial legislature extended the franchise.
For their part the powers in Cheyenne were amenable to this radical new experiment because they hoped sooner rather than later to become a state even though the population was far below the usual requirement. They knew that theTerritory’s chances of admission to the Union would be enhanced if it was safely Republican—the party of the rising cattle barons, mine owners, merchants, and professional classes. But Democrats—laborers, miners, homesteaders, small ranchers threatened to swamp Republicans at the polls. Women, especially respectable women, were considered to be reliably Republican and adding them to the voting rolls gave the party an edge.
Republicans did come to dominate the state, but extending the vote to women frightened the Eastern Establishment and in the end probably delayed admission to the Union until 1890. Certainly Harper’s Weekly and other popular newspapers and magazines mocked Wyoming women voters mercilessly. But Wyoming stuck to its guns anyway— some said because Territorial legislators were afraid of their wives.
Modest Louisa Ann Swain, a demure Quaker grandmother, probably did not set out to make history. She was up and about early and left her home in Laramie carrying a small tin pail, intent on purchasing some yeast at a general store for her baking. On her errand she happened to pass a polling place that was still being set up and not yet officially open. Wanting to get on with her baking without having to come back downtown, she inquired if she might be allowed to cast her vote then.
The accommodating election official obliged and as a small crowd of the usual loafer and political hacks looked on, she marked her ballot. One of the observers was a reporter for the Laramie Sentinel who described her as “a gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance.” The same paper congratulated the good behavior of witnesses, “There was too much good sense in our community for any jeers or sneers to be seen on such an occasion.”
Of course other women made it to the polls that day. And it is even possible that in some other town bereft of documentation someone else actually voted earlier. But let’s give Swain the credit she deserves.
She had been born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1800 as Louisa Ann Gardner, the daughter of a sailing captain who was lost at sea in her childhood. He widowed mother moved to Charleston, South Carolina where she died sometime latter leaving young Louisa an orphan.
Sent to live with an uncle in Baltimore, Maryland Louisa met and married Stephen Swain, who operated a successful chair factory, in 1821. The couple had four children. But with the youngest still in swaddling, Stephen got the itchy feet that seemed epidemic among 19th Century men. He sold the factory and moved west, first to Zanesville, Ohio, and later to Indiana.
When the couple’s oldest son moved his family to Wyoming in 1868, the elder Swains came with him. Not that they stayed long. Within a year or so of fateful election with Stephen ailing, the couple returned to Maryland where he died in 1872. In 1880 Louisa was laid by his side in the Friends Burial Ground.
The Louisa Swain Foundation dedicated the Wyoming House for Historic Women in downtown Laramie in 2005. A life size bronze statue of Swain stands in a plaza in front of the building which houses a sort of Wyoming Women’s Hall of Fame. Thirteen honorees inside include Esther Hobart Morris, bailiff Mary Atkinson, Nellie Tayloe Ross, first woman elected Governor in the United States and first woman Director of the U.S. Mint, Lynn Cheney, author and wife of Vice President Dick Cheney.
Four years ago on this date in 2008 Congress declared an official Louis Ann Swain Day.